Kayport Package Express implodes, 1983

Kayport founder F. George Celani and his partner Aaron Binder (rear) in handcuffs after their fraud convictions in July 1985. (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Founder F. George Celani called Kayport Package Express a “41-day miracle” when the shipping startup went into business at Capital Airport on March 1, 1983. About 1,200 Springfield dignitaries attended the ceremony, which included champagne, a high-school band and a hot-air balloon.

Kayport turned into a calamity in less than a week. Celani and his partner, Aaron Binder, turned into convicts (for Celani, it wasn’t the first, or last, time). And the civic leaders who endorsed Celani’s pipe dreams, albeit sometimes with reservations, turned into dupes.

Celani was found dead Feb. 7, 2024, in Queens, N.Y. In death, he achieved a level of national prominence he probably dreamed of in life – a 1,200-word obituary published by the New York Times on April 19, 2024.

State Journal-Register reporter Bruce Rushton recalled Kayport’s short life in a 2007-08 retrospective.

It began in Brentwood, Calif., in the fall of 1982. Celani was renting a $10,000-a-month home from Shirlee Kay. Kay happened to be the fiancée of Albert Myers, a member of the family that had founded Myers Brothers Department Store, once Springfield’s grandest merchandiser. …

Celani walked Myers around the headquarters of Celani, Celani & Associates. Myers was obviously impressed. Celani told Myers that he’d been studying Federal Express.

Nebraska, Celani said, would be the perfect place to start up a new overnight shipping service.

The hook was set. “Nebraska?” Myers asked. “Why not Springfield?”

Myers provided the local introductions and a measure of credibility. For his part, Celani boasted he would bring startup money – “hundreds of millions of dollars” – and business acumen to Kayport. His claims were fictional – Celani’s track record included at least two previous prison terms for fraud – but he was incredibly persuasive.

“He could sell ice to Alaskans and shampoo to the bald,” a bamboozled associate told a San Francisco newspaper reporter following a Celani scheme there in the 1990s.

The State Journal-Register published a two-page spread of Kayport “welcome” ads (SJ-R)

In Springfield, Celani predicted the infant company would shortly be shipping 100,000 parcels a day across the country. The keys, he said, would be “Star Track,” a state-of-the-art package tracking system, and a doughnut-shaped sorting hub to be built at Capital Airport. Springfield, then in the throes of recession, would benefit from $100 million worth of business to be generated by Kayport, he said.

“In a whirlwind few months,” the Times obituary said, “he hired 100 workers, including pilots; leased cars; and rented office space and an airplane hangar.”

“Kayport’s a winner,” Celani told the crowd at the opening-day party, the Journal-Register reported.

“Coming here was an unusual experience because nothing seemed to work right,” he recalled. “We got attacked from all sides.”

Criticized for his unconventional methods, unbridled optimism and unswerving belief in the Kayport cause, Celani said “the people who actually counted” stood behind him, as did the Springfield Airport Authority.

That faith will be rewarded, he said. …

“Anybody who doesn’t believe in Kayport, raise your hand,” he added, and not a hand was seen in the air.

The skeptics, both open and reticent, were proven right in short order. Kayport’s local employees were laid off the following Monday, six days after the opening ceremony. Myers resigned as operating director the same day.

Celani disappeared from Springfield. He wouldn’t return until May 1984, when federal prosecutors charged him with racketeering, conspiracy, and mail and wire fraud. He was convicted of 15 counts in July 1985 (Binder, Celani’s co-defendant, was found guilty on eight counts).

Celani was sentenced to 15 years in prison; he ultimately served six years.

His career as a con man, however, continued. According to the NYT obituary, Celani served two more prison terms – seven years and nine years, respectively – for frauds in California and New York state.

“While incarcerated, he had three strokes and lost vision in one eye,” the obituary said. Celani was 75 years old when he died.

Times obituary writer Richard Sandomir quoted Rushton: “The thing that I thought was odd is that of all the people I talked to, nobody was mad at the guy,” Rushton said.

“They saw the humor in it.”

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